Talking about the smog that hung like a blanket suffocating Calcutta, the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, said that it -“sometimes almost makes one forget that this is an Asiatic capital, which besmirches the midday sky with its vulgar tar brush and turns our sunsets into a murky gloom. I am reluctant to see Calcutta, which has risen like a flame, perish in soot and smoke; and I may inform you that we have an expert from England, even now on the seas, coming out here to advise us as to how we may combat this insidious and growing danger.”
These words were part of Lord Curzon’s speech in the Bengal Chamber of Commerce on 12 February 1903, condemning the air pollution in the city.
In the late nineteenth century, the City of Joy had begun choking on soot and smoke.
And it was during this point that the Bengal Smoke Nuisances Act of 1905 was introduced to clear up the city’s lungs. And within months, the effects were in the air, helping the city breathe. The wheels have now turned once again. The entire country is suffering due to the falling standards of air quality.
So what did the Act do to clean up the city’s air?
Fighting Air Pollution with Legislation
With colonisation and the rapid industrial boom, the use of coal as a fuel became rampant in Calcutta. Researcher M R Anderson categorised the air pollution levels in the city into three phases. The first phase is the period before 1855 where domestic activities like burning of firewood, and cow dung, among others, were the top most causes of the deteriorating air quality.
Post-1855, the use of coal accelerated with the opening of railway lines between Raniganj coalfields and the city. Most of the industries ran on machinery or engines that were fired by coal thus increasing emissions. After 1880, coal was widely used commercially and in individual homes which was alarming as the city became prone to temperature inversions where the smog-filled air descends closer to the ground.
The Calcutta and Howrah Smoke Nuisances Act of 1863 had to be brought in with different sections of the society clamouring for strict laws to control the pollution crisis. The colonial government of the time modelled this act on a similar one introduced in London. However, due to the administration’s pro-industry outlook, this Act failed to make a dent and fulfil its promise.
The Passing of the Legislation and its Aftermath
After a serious episode of smog in 1878, the administration formed a committee to look into the air pollution situation in 1879. The committee appointed Smoke Inspector of Leeds, Frederick Grover, in 1902 to facilitate recommendations to curb the pollution levels.
He found out that the industrial chimneys in the city were releasing almost 20 tons of soot into the air. They also found that using husk in rice mills as fuel and improper stoking of coal were main reasons why air pollution was at an all time high.
In 1905, the Bengal Smoke Nuisances Act came into being and led to the formation of the Bengal Smoke Nuisances Commission. The commission comprised of representatives from the administration as well as those who belonged to the Bengal Chamber of Commerce to maintain a balance in the interests of both factions.
Following were the steps taken to curb air pollution in the city and its vicinity:
-Boiler mechanics were fined for improper stoking practices and mill managers were also held accountable for not being able to manage emissions.
-About 100 electric motors were installed as opposed to the ones that consumed coal to reduce emissions in 1912.
-There were regular inspections of factories to check the emissions
-The activities of the railways and the Calcutta Port Commissioners were supervised by the Smoke Nuisances Commission.
-Notices were sent out to these different sectors, regulations were enforced.
-There was a complete ban on setting up industries in Calcutta’s city area.
-Researcher Janine Wilhelm in her book, ‘Environment and Pollution in Colonial India’, spoke about how a Central Smoke Observatory was constructed atop one the highest buildings in the city. This enabled the authorities in the city to monitor every factory chimney within an 80 square mile circumference.
Gradually, the pollution levels in the city came down.
Newspaper reports also applauded this amazing feat. A Times of India report published in July 1909 stated, ‘The average emission of dense, black smoke is now less than one sixth of what it was in April 1909’. Thus, this development documented in the pages of history clearly illustrates that the cooperation of various stakeholders can lead to pragmatic legislation that helps us protect our environment.
The Lessons The Past Can Teach Us
As we rang in the New Year, one of the headlines that kept slapping our faces was the worsening air quality index. The winter months are especially bad across the country in terms of the air we breathe. Among the major contributors of the increasing PM 2.5 levels is the burning of firecrackers, crop residue and fuel for heat, along with the pre-existing industrial and vehicular emissions.
The State of India’s Environment report published on 5 June 2019 states that air pollution kills around 8 out of 10,000 children on an average in India before they even turn five. There is no escaping the climate crisis, whether you are living in a mansion or a ramshackle shanty in a slum.
In this regard, it is imperative that there are stricter legislation in place, especially in large cities which witness polluting activities on a large scale.
The City of Joy once enforced an Act for the good of the people. Perhaps it is time we took lessons from the past.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)
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